The Creative Writer - Look around…

…and you'll find great characters everywhere... Now, how do you transport them to your fictional worlds?

Updated - March 05, 2011 06:49 pm IST

Published - March 05, 2011 06:48 pm IST

Hosni Mubarak.

Hosni Mubarak.

Great characters are not born in a writer's head. They live out there in the world from where they invade a writer's consciousness and then take over his or her thoughts so utterly that he or she is obliged to translate them on to the page. In the last month one such character presented himself to me, one Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

From ever since I can remember, Mubarak has come to mind whenever I have thought of Egypt — before the pyramids and the Nile, before King Tut and Cleopatra. In an age where change is the only constant, he was one immovable object. The Berlin Wall collapsed and with it the entire Soviet bloc and communism in Europe. Saddam Hussein went from being the most feared man in the world to a second-rate dictator weighed down by sanctions to a fugitive who ended his life in the gallows. Four American Presidents served out their terms and headed off into the sunset. But Mubarak continued unfazed. Turn on the TV and there he was — the fleshy face growing out of the shirt collar, the pursed lips and shrunken eyes, the flat head crowned by sparse black hair. What was more, year after year he looked the same, an apt metaphor for his immovability, like someone destined to stay in his fifties forever. No surprise then that he became President at fifty-three.

In stasis

But I didn't see him as interesting. A character has to grow to be interesting, and Mubarak appeared mired in stasis. Moreover, far from brimming with complexities, he was boringly one-dimensional; a stolid dictator, albeit more benevolent than some, with a talent for perpetuating himself at the helm.

And then the last 30 days happened.

For a character stuck so long in stasis, Mubarak grew phenomenally in a matter of days. Grew stunted that is. From a latter-day pharaoh, he metamorphosed into a pathetic old man trying to cling on to power after his time had passed. The hair remained defiantly black, but the face was all jowls and wrinkles with the eyes sunk deep in the sockets and the voice reminiscent of a croak. In his panic, he pitched about like a dinghy in a gale, firing and appointing aides, despatching thugs to intimidate protesters, issuing one meaningless statement after another. Finally, one day, he mercifully quit.

Now is this Mubarak a worthy character? Undoubtedly. He goes from the imperiousness of a pharaoh to a figure out of Greek tragedy, exuding hubris, pathos, intrigue — all classic elements of great drama and storytelling.

So how would I fictionalise him if I wanted?

In fiction

Well, since I know very little about Egypt, I'd have to remove him from there. Exporting him to India is the logical option. There he will fit nicely as a regional satrap of a national party or the leader of a regional party. Unlike Egypt, India is a democracy and, despite its flaws, holds free and fair elections. So my Mubarak will have to actually win elections to get into office. Merely stuffing the ballot box won't do. To win he will have to be charismatic, rather than appear dour like the real Mubarak. To that end reinventing him in the image of the other world-famous Egyptian, the actor Omar Sharif, should work just fine. With Sharif's face and voice he will be suitably telegenic. And I will give him a pair of dark glasses in his waning years, a la another formerly impregnable Arab leader, Colonel Gaddafi, to convey the impression of a man blind to the changes sweeping round him.

Mubarak came from the military, which has never been known to breed notable Indian politicians. So my Mubarak will need a makeover in that respect. Since I see him as a self-made man, rather than the scion of a political dynasty, he has to be a son of the soil or, since perception is what counts in politics, someone who does a pretty good job of selling himself as one. A popular movie actor with a penchant for playing populist roles comes to mind. After all, role-playing is just as much a part of politics as of the cinema.

So my Mubarak is ready to go. Now I simply have to write his story.

I chose a topical and recognisable example for this exercise in order to illustrate how a real-life person can be transformed into a credible fictional character. You don't have to watch the world news to do that. Great characters inhabit the world around you. They live on your street, ride the bus with you to work, dot the cafes where you have your latte. All you have to do is watch out for them, and then let your imagination go to work.

Vikram Kapur is a well-known novelist and short story writer.

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